When I was a young pup working for Senator Birch Bayh, who like Lloyd Bentsen was the kind of giant in rare supply in Washington today, on a few occasions, my bosses would take me to the old Mayflower Hotel where Kenny O’Donnell would hold court. I was barely old enough to imbibe the beverages, but I sat there quietly and awestruck, listening and learning as Kenny told “war stories” of Jack and Bobby.
Thinking about the results in the California House seat this week, if the Kennedys and O’Donnell were having breakfast the morning after, does anybody believe they would be saying anything like this: OK guys, Kerry got 44% in that District, and we got all the way up to 45%, and forced the Republicans to spend twice as much as us, to win the seat again?
In fact, if Jack, Bobby and Kenny had breakfast the day after that result, the FCC would not permit me on talk radio to use the exact words they would have used, but the word would go forth to Democrats everywhere: do not let this happen again.
Jack and Bobby and their contemporaries were the younger generation within the great generation. When America was at war to save the world for freedom, they used their special influence and privilege, not to avoid the war, but to join it. Having won the war against Hitler, they understood that true wartime leaders inspire the nation to rally together as a united band of brothers and sisters, and having defeated fascism they became inspiring champions of democracy and were a vital part of winning the cold war against communism.
Senator Ted Kennedy gave a recent talk at his book party, which can be viewed on the C-Span site, where he spoke of this idea of unity, and applied it to our issues today, in ways that all Democrats should be inspired by, and George W. Bush would do well to learn from.
It’s a sign of our times that the demonizing haters of the idiot right, when they are not slandering the widows of 9-11, are still obsessed with demonizing Ted Kennedy. I have worked in both the Senate and House and seen Senator Kennedy up close, and the truth is the opposite of the lie. What is most extraordinary about Ted Kennedy, is that he remains a Lion of progressivism, but just as important, he has always had highly respectful friendships and professional relationship with dozens of Republican colleagues that have enabled him to build an enormous body of achievement.
Jack, Bobby and Kenny believed in this: in elections there is one winner and one loser. The winner should campaign in a battle of ideas, and gets to wield power to implement those ideas to make our country better. The loser has nothing but excuses for defeat.
JFK viewed politics as mobilization, promoting worthy ideas and running political organizations that were full blown machines, on every level, from seizing the media initiative to organizing armies of workers, to aggressively fighting on every level involving the machinery as well as the ideas that win elections.
Looking at the Democrats today, observations:
In the recent California House election, at a time when the previous incumbent embodies incarceration for corruption, when the popularity of the Republican President is at catastrophic lows, when the favorable ratings of the one party Republican Congress are barely above the bird flu, it is a pathetic performance and a red alert warning to Democrats that they could only exceed John Kerry’s vote in the district by 1%.
Everyone knew for many months this election was coming, and was important. With the ability of the entire Democratic Party to focus on one House election, of such importance, at such a critical moment, it is inexcusable that the Republicans could outspend the Democrats by huge amounts, and my guess is, it would make the Kenny O’Donnells and Larry O’Briens fist pounding angry that some Democratic spinmeisters would try to spin this into a positive.
It was inexcusable, with months to plan for this election, that Democrats were outmanned on absentee voting; that the candidate of the Party was so sloppy and unprepared that she blunders on the front page issue of immigration; and that the Party that has become almost completely dominated by a consultariat class was so media un-savvy that the candidate doomed herself, with a wrongheaded apology, that only guaranteed saturation coverage to the demonization attack against her.
I have no doubt, that with months to plan for this important election, Jack, Bobby, and Kenny would have made damn sure that every power and resource of the party was poured into the district to win; The money would have been raised and spent. Armies would have focused on the machinery of the election. The message would have been clear, hard and focused. There would have been no apologies, but instead a ringing call to action, participation, voting rights, and winning. The Republicans did this. Democrats did not.
Going forward, there are lessons. Democrats must understand the enormity of this election and rally the entire party, from the base to the money raisers, to fight and win on every level. Bromides, platitudes, caution, evasions and hoping Bush falls far enough for Democrats to win by default, this is the road to continued disaster and defeat.
Example: it is annoying, distracting and destructive that instead of projecting unity, strength and confidence we are forced to endure stories of petty feuds between Howard Dean and Rahm Emmanuel. These disputes could be easily resolved, should never be in the news, and party fundraisers should create a rising tide of money, to wage a political battle worthy of the stakes in every district and state where a Democratic candidate has a fair chance of ending one party government in Washington.
Example: It would be swell if the Democratic Leadership Council would prepare for a great debate with other Democrats on national security that begins the day after the upcoming elections, and until then, confine their attacks to a Republican Administration that has created a major mess of virtually every institution of national security. Compared to the status quo of Bush and Cheney, the DLC and Party liberals are soul brothers and blood brothers of agreement compared to what is happening today.
The DLC can make an important contribution, but with all due respect, the fact that almost all of them were so wrong, for so long, on the Iraq war; the fact that throughout their long history of being wrong they continued their condescending quasi-demeaning of other Democrats who were far more right then they; and considering the need for the Party to take a case of unity and confidence to the country in an election of historic magnitude a little more modesty and common sense would in order.
What made JFK so special, was that he brought together differing voices of his own generation, and took his case to the country as a leader with George McGovern standing by him on one side, while Scoop Jackson stood beside him, on the other. We can learn from that; we can win with that.
Example: One of the underestimated attributes of Joe Kennedy Sr., which proved invaluable to JFK, was that he was a producer of motion pictures and ahead of his time in realizing the media migration from radio, to silent pictures, to talking pictures to the power of television as the media that would dominate his age.
What JFK did brilliantly in his era, and we should do in ours, is seize the moment and mobilize the party and nation through every avenue of the media technology of his time. Today there is an explosion of new media with people power measured in the tens of millions. It is inexcusable that Republicans remain a decade ahead of Democrats in building, mobilizing and propagating these new media and many tens of millions of believers who drive them.
It is not enough for Party leaders to continue consultant driven and poorly targeted spending on large-scale ad buys, with an occasional internet petition that is little more than exploiting these people and technologies; with an occasional speech treating this huge and growing mass of millions as just another interest group. What is needed is wholesale commitment to funding and participation throughout these new media media worlds; new energizing collaborations between the “blogosphere” communities and the party structure, and possibly even bring back the midterm National Convention that would drive unity and mobilization and make a decade-level leap to use our inherent advantages to challenge and surpass the Republican media and message machine.
There is a place in victory for the consultariat class, the Democratic Leadership Council and the Washington insiders. But Jack, Bobby and Kenny were outsiders to the system of their age. They brought whole new entrants into the political process. They organized at every level of politics and fought at every level to win at the machinery of elections. They knew the media and technology of their times and brought power to the message by driving the terms of the media.
Their leader and our hero Jack Kennedy had George McGovern and Scoop Jackson together, showing respect to the Martin Luther Kings, supported by the Frank Sinatras, reaching out to veterans who came home triumphant from the Second World War, speaking confidently of freedom and democracy at home and abroad, mobilizing the full force, power and people of the Democratic Party for the kind of challenge that should be our answer today, to a status quo that an overwhelming majority of Americans want ended.